Dabney Rose’s post about the potent scent of her Moonflowers on Facebook, jolted back to my mind my youthful memories of Moonflowers. My mother was wise in teaching me early which plants were edible and which ones were poisonous. When she introduced me to Moonflowers, I was enthralled. That it was also poisonous only added to its mystery to me. To me it was like a femme fatale; mysterious and seductive, with the deadly ensnaring charms of its beautiful pure white flowers, and irresistible intoxicating scent, exuded at night, the very embodiment of the romance of the darkness of night. Besides that, how can a Cancerian not be more than curious about a flower called Moonflower?
I was so in enchanted with the mysterious beauty of Moonflowers that I begged my mother to plant one outside my bedroom window. It was a Brugmansia tree, also called Angel’s Trumpet. It flourished there, delighting me at night with its sweet fragrance wafting through my window. One night I had a vivid dream that launched me onto the path of exploring the mysteries of scent.
I found myself inside forest. Sniffing the humid night air, a fragrance of otherworldly beauty enveloped my senses. Like Siren’s song its narcotic sweetness drew me deeper and deeper into the forest. Floating on the scented breath I came to a tree bedecked with glowing moon white pendulous flowers. Its fragrant whispers drew me into cool dusky arms. Nestled in the branches, as if in a lover’s embrace, I felt warm and secure, feeling no need of any nourishment other than the lulling sweetness of the flowers. Surrendering to melody of its scented lullaby, I drifted into a deeper dream, gently transforming into a bud on its branches. Dark sap rose in my nectaries with the whisperings of dusk to unfurl my garments of white and in bliss I sang my silent perfumed song.
Dreams are today’s answers to tomorrow’s questions. – Edgar Cayce
Although Moonflowers are not indigenous to Africa but originates from South America, they have long been used here by traditional healers and diviners. The most widely distributed species in southern Africa is Datura stramoniun. It was first reported from the Cape in 1714. The name Moonflower is shared by both Datura and the closely related genus, Brugmansia. They both used to called Datura but now those with upright pointing flowers is called Datura and the those with pendulous, not erect, flowers, Brugmansia. Brugmansia are long-lived, woody trees or bushes that have no spines on their fruit. Datura species are herbaceous bushes, mostly annuals, that have spines on their fruit (Ref)
After my personal experience with the scent of Brugmansia, and dreaming, I was not surprised to discover that there are many myths indicating that the scent of a brugmansia can lead to intoxication. Both Brugmansia and Datura have been revered as sacred visionary plants by practically all cultures that have come into contact with them with a reputation as Shamanic plants, rich in lore. The Zuni legend about the origin of Datura demonstrates the belief that the scent of Datura and Brugmansia can make people fall asleep and have visionary dreams.
Once upon a time a long, long time ago, a boy called A’neglakya and his sister A’neglakyatsi-tsa lived deep within the Earth. As often as they could they came up to the surface to go on long walks, exploring the land, watching and listening carefully to all and everything they encountered on their journeys. Upon their return they told their mother about everything they had seen. However, one day the twin-sons of the Sun-god grew suspicious of them and they wondered what they should do about the inquisitive pair. Soon after, A’neglakya and his sister were once again on one of their walkabouts, when they came upon the sons of the Sun-god. Casually the twins inquired about their well-being: “We are very happy” was the reply, and A’neglakya told the twins how he and his sister could make people fall asleep and have visionary dreams or let them ‘see’ the whereabouts of lost objects. Upon hearing this the twins decided that the two definitely knew too much and that they should put an end to A’neglakya’s and A’neglakyatsi-tsa’s doings. That day the sons of the Sun-god let the brother and sister disappear into the Earth forever. But lo and behold, two beautiful flowers emerged from the ground in just the same spot where the two had vanished. They were the same flowers that the brother and sister had laid on the heads of the people to give them visions. In their memory the Gods called the flower A’neglakya and their children spread far across the Earth – bringing visions to many people. (Ref)
The Zuni Legend of the First Datura by Katlyn Breene
Perhaps these myths, is not so far fetched. GABA (Gamma Aminobutyric Acid) is a brain chemical that acts like a natural tranquilizer is responsible for regulating activity in the nervous system, inhibiting neurons from over-firing. While GABA is chemically an amino acid, it is rarely referred to as one. Instead, it is better known as a neurotransmitter. Through its inhibitory effects, GABA promotes relaxation and sleep. The inability to produce sufficient levels of GABA has been linked to anxiety disorders, depression, multiple sclerosis, action tremors and alcoholism. (Ref) Researchers from Bochum led by Prof. Hanns Hatt, discovered that Vertacetal-coeur (VC) or gardenia acetal fragrance (2,4,6- trimethyl-4-phenyl-1,3-dioxane) and (1, 3)-dioxane derivatives (FDDs) enhance the action of GABA and are as strong as the commonly prescribed barbiturates or propofol. They soothe, relieve anxiety and promote sleep. They were able to increase the GABA effect by more than five times and thus act as strongly as the known drugs. The scent molecules are breathed in via the air, and go from the lungs into the blood and are then transmitted from there to the brain. (Ref)
Perhaps the scent from Datura and Brugmansia acts in much the same way. I haven’t come across any Datura and Brugmansia since my youth to smell, and can only remember their beautiful pervasive sweetness, so I asked Dabney to describe her Ipomoea ‘Moonflower’;
When inhaled, it brings the vision of a Datura. Both flowers exhale with a heavy, narcotic breath, that in large doses can be brain-numbing. To this small select group I would also include Lily of the Valley, also highly poisonous. The ‘sweetness’ is light; like Lily of the Valley, but the experience as a whole is heavy.
Bo Jensen describes the Brugmansia suaveolens’ scent, which was the variety that grew outside my window, as a light and powerful scent of lemony-creamy-rosy character. According to one study of the volatiles from the flowers by HS-SPME and GC-MS analysis, the principal components were 1,8-cineol, (Z)-beta-ocimene, beta-myrcene, citronellol, citronellal, alpha-thujene, terpinen-4-ol and its acetate, nerol, neral and geranial (citral). Another study also found nerolidol, alpha-terpineol and phenethyl alcohol to be present. (Ref)
It is not just the scent of the flowers that has a reputation for bringing intoxication and visions, any part of the plant can cause intoxication. Another myth from a tribe in the Amazon tells a story of a young man, destined to become a shaman, who one day finds a Brugmansia tree that has many dead animals under it. He decides to sleep under the tree and has incredible dreams. Night after night he returns to the tree, until one night, the tree tells him that he can no longer safely sleep under it. “If you want to continue this path you must take my foliage home and make it into a tea.” (Ref)
Dried and powdered roots and leaves are sometimes used in South Africa by diviners as a conscience-altering snuff and dried leaves smoked to induce euphoria, to treat headache, or to treat asthma. Weak infusions of the leaves are used for insomnia by the elderly, and even as aphrodisiacs by lovers. In South Africa the seeds are known as “malpitte” (crazy pips). To this day the ground seeds are mixed into the Chicha, the sacramental corn beer (Zea mays) found in South America. The combination of Datura seeds and alcoholic drinks appears to be a global phenomena. It is a documented practice amongst all kinds of unrelated tribes throughout the Americas, was practiced in China (mixed with wine), and even became popular in Europe during the Middle Ages (mixed into beer). Whilst in the New World the beverage was generally used within a ritual context, in the Old World the brews were generally consumed for more recreational purposes. (Ref)
Here in South Africa, almost all cases requiring hospitalization have been teenagers experimenting. Signs of acute poisoning include widely diluted pupils, rapid pulse, a flushed appearance, dry mouth, delirium, and fever. Fatalities are also well known. Any part of the plant can cause mental confusion and vivid hallucinations, as all parts are potentially highly toxic. (Ref)
The plants contain several tropane alkaloids, of which atropine –hyoscyamine and hyoscine (scopolamine) are major ones. Atropine is used in modern anesthetics as pre-medication to decrease bronchial and salivary secretions, and to increase heart rate. The effect on the central nervous system is firstly stimulation, and then sedation. Derivatives of atropine are used in some modern asthma inhalers. Scopolamine is a potent sedative, and is used in low doses in skin patches to treat motion sickness. It has been used as a general anesthetic in China. (Ref)
As you can see, even the poisons from the moonflowers have beneficial uses when used in the right context, in the right dosages by those who know what they are doing. There is, furthermore, fascinating esoteric lore regarding the poisons of the Solanaceae family
Brugmansia and Datura species belongs to the Solanaceae family. Among them are many medicinal plants with powerful actions, and also many poisonous plants with the most powerful toxins in the plant world. The poison produced by these plants is just as characteristic of the family as their morphology. The Solanaceae, for example, produce closely related poisons in the deadly nightshade, the henbane, the thorn-apple (moonflower), the mandrake, and in scopolia; this type of poison appears in no other plant family. The Solanaceae can be divided into two major groups. In the first group, are the very poisonous plants with their typical Solanaceae alkaloids; the second group, contains a much weaker poison, solanine (and related compounds). This is a peculiar type of substance, found only in the Solanaceae; it stands between the glycosides and the alkaloids, and is half glycoside, half alkaloid. Among them are tomato, potato, woody nightshade (Solarium dulcamara), eggplant, paprika, and winter cherry. Incredible as it may now seem to us tomatoes were for example considered poisonous when first introduced from South America to Europe, described as “dangerous – ripe with the seeds of madness.” Perhaps where “malpitte” came from? Tomatoes especially took a long time to be accepted by the British, even after they did start to eat tomatoes, it was always cooked. Only after the first world war did they start to eat raw tomatoes. The Italian word for Aubergines – melenzana – still carries a remenant of this concept; it means unwholesome apple.
So, although the Solanaceae contains poisons they bring gifts to us. In German word for poison is Gift. In the runic alphabet, the rune Gyfu has the meaning of gift. It is shaped like the Roman letter X and it was used to denote things dedicated to the gods. In the English language, ‘gift’ still means a present today. When we speak of a “gifted child” we mean that the child is a talented with above average abilities. If we follow this line of thought there is a suggestion that the poisonous plant is more gifted with a power than its non-poisonous counterparts. According to Rudolf Steiner it is this aspect of being “gifted” that is the esoteric origin of the Solanaceae poisons. According to all wisdom traditions, wandering into certain areas of spiritual dimensions before you have been properly prepare, or developed the appropriate channels to receive higher spiritual influx is a dangerous exercise and can cause madness. Wilhelm Pelikan explains;
If a higher, spiritual region becomes effective in a lower region, it will always prove poisonous in that region, unless the principle which is taking effect descends by the prescribed sequence of stages which links the two in a manner “appropriate to the world”. The Solanaceae are a marvellous illustration of this. In them, the astral enters into the plant sphere of life (which is physical and etheric), and combines with it. Poisonous plants like the deadly nightshade or the henbane absorb this astral element in greater or lesser degree. The same thing which entering into the animal kingdom gives to the animal its astral body, making the animal a sentient being, also makes the plant, if it enters within it, into a poisonous plant. The darkness of night has become embodied in this family. This refers to harmful nocturnal elemental beings, and the German Nachtschatten (nightshade) derives from it. This also finds expression in the flowering times (at night for tobacco and Datura species) or in the way in which flowers seek out darkness, often by complicated movements, when coming into flower (Belladonna, scopolia). Clairvoyant perception of this note of darkness and night probably gave rise to the Germanic-Celtic name of the plant, Nah-skado. In Nordic mythology Skadi was the daughter of Thiassi, the winter giant killed by Thor. With its catabolic action on living protein, that produces the alkaloids, the poisons are in turn able to act upon the sphere of the human astral body, and particularly on its relations to the sensory organization. In many and different ways, they force the astral body out of it normal relations to the physical. The soul is filled not with sensory contents, but with abnormal consciousness, with images reflecting no external reality which are experienced as hallucinations, as visions. It was not for nothing that the henbane, mandrake and thorn-apple were used in the ointments, potions and fumigants of medieval witchcraft. Their toxic action forced the supra-sensible members of man’s being out of the body which was tied to the earth and to gravity — often in a manner representing a considerable danger to life. The result was the experience of “levity”, a sensation of floating weightlessly and of flying. The sensory experiences which make us aware of the daylight world were replaced by astral experiences, though these were of a type belonging to a lower astral sphere, where desires, drives and appetites may appear most vividly portrayed; in short, a “Walpurgis Night sphere” might open up.”
I think I will stick to smelling moonflowers in small dosages. Moonflowers in all their guises captures the imagination. My youthful experiences of them has certainly caused me to embark on a life long journey in search of the mysteries of nature’s scent. Ever since then, I have listened quietly with my nose to hear the words of the scented poems and wisdom whispered by nature, and drop by drop, blended them with my own melodies.